Not just a hitmaker who’s owned the realms of hip-hop, pop and Latin music, will.i.am has proven himself a deft entrepreneur over the years, making a number of savvy investments in everything from Beats by Dre to Twitter to Tesla – all while continuing to give back to various communities via his i.am.angel foundation.
Putting aside the numerous No. 1s he’s racked up over the years with Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am and manager Polo Molina sat down with Billboard senior editor Lyndsey Havens for an eye-opening discussion on Wednesday (Sept. 22), titled The Artist As Entrepreneur Presented By Verizon.
Looking back on their history together and forward to where they see the economy in 10 years, here are seven thought-provoking quotes from will.i.am and Polo Molina’s panel at Billboard 2021 Latin Music Week.
“An entrepreneur is somebody that has a vision, is fearless and has the ability to withstanding all the cynicism, skepticism and criticism and comes out with more knowledge,” says will.i.am, noting that sometimes that also means “stopping [what you’re doing] and moving on to the next thing” if you realize it’s not happening.
Their Working Relationship
“Certain artists take the steering wheel and drive,” Molina says. “Will’s been so consistent and never leads us to a dead-end. He’s always has the vision — his thinking is big. He sets the goals and hunts them down.”
Where the Next Opportunities Are
“COVID happened and we stayed home for a year and a half,” will.i.am says. “Our phones became our office, more so than our laptop. Zoom came out of nowhere. Before, it was rude to always be on your phone; now, it’s like, ‘I’m working.'” He said he believes the next innovations will come from the Black and brown communities, who are using technological tools that are “somebody else’s.” “We have to adapt… your phone is your office, and where is the next transformation going to come from? Black and brown is powerful.”
Never Think Small
“It’s not a small business,” will.i.am says of using the term ‘small business owner.’ “It’s a business that can be as big as you want it to be. That title, small business owners, is brainwashing. Usually it’s aimed at Black and brown and Latinx. Starbucks was a mom and pop.”
Plan for the Future
“2031 is crazy and if we don’t prepare ourselves for how complex it is around the corner, we’ll have a rude awakening,” will.i.am predicts, pointing to robotics and artificial intelligence as transformative fields that will alter job markets. “It’s gonna be very turbulent for Black and brown people. The jobs that are going to be haven’t been invented yet, and jobs that are won’t exist. If you’re an Uber driver, you’re not in 2031. If you’re a cashier, you’re not in 2031. If you’re a truck driver, you’re not in 2031.”
On Moving Into Consumer Equipment
Molina noted that it was will.i.am who began eying branding opportunities for consumer equipment before Beats By Dre — of which will.i.am is a quiet equity partner — was off the ground, telling Jimmy Iovine that as CD sales declined, it was time to look at getting into equipment. “I remember when I was just dreaming about making music. I would go to Guitar Center and look at equipment. I didn’t even have the money to buy it,” will.i.am recalled of his pre-fame days. “The same is for where I’m at at this crossroads. I go to Best Buy and I see items on the aisles and think, ‘One day I want to make something like that.'” And, of course, he can: “I have a squad of a hundred developers around the world,” he casually mentions.
Coming from the projects in East Los Angeles, will.i.am – who’s been friends with Molina for decades – says he never lost that scrappy, nothing-to-lose attitude and open mind. “A couple years ago we were in South Africa in this resort and I was like, ‘Polo, we could have a resort like this. Why are we spending money on other people’s stuff?’ When you’re from the projects, you have nothing – you’re one step away from being homeless. All you have is looking up.”